Buses Head for the Border Sending School Buses to Developing Countries Isn't the Best Form of Reuse

You’d never recognize them. Every year thousands of “re-tired” American school buses turn up in developing countries, but aside from the trademark shape and flashing lights, these “chicken buses’ show few signs of their former lives as sturdy movers of students. In Guatemala, for example, the new owners transform each standard yellow school bus from stodgy schoolmarm to pop diva with elaborate multicolored hot-rod-like paint jobs and plenty of chrome. Women’s names such as Carmencita, Esmeralda or Norma replace, for example, “Allegheny County Schools’ on the buses’ sides. The core of the country’s transit system, they roar along the highway carrying people, produce and livestock.

At first glance, it seems like an environmental victory to squeeze the maximum life out of such equipment, the automotive equivalent of sending old sweaters to Goodwill. Yet, though the external transformation is dazzling, the internal machinery of these buses remains the same. As heavy black smoke blows from tailpipes—filled not only with global-warming pollution but also soot and other contaminants that cause more immediate health problems—it becomes clear that this form of reuse and recycling has a dark side.

Old school buses cause a problem long before they leave the U.S., because they burn diesel fuel and often produce greater harmful emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that pre-1990 buses may emit up to six times more pollution than newer models. The exhaust contains nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter. “It has been associated with asthma, bronchial problems, cancer and heart damage,” says Patricia Monahan, director for clean vehicles at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Nitrogen oxide emissions from diesel engines contribute to smog formation and also react with other air pollutants to increase the level of particulates in the air.

The trade in used machinery isn’t limited to school buses. Everything from used cars to old coal-fired power plants are sold to developing countries. Some see this practice as dumping old technology the same way countries have paid to dump their garbage and hazardous waste in poor countries, says Fanta Kamakaté, senior scientist at the International Council on Clean Transportation. “Yet, there’s a need for mobility in developing countries,” she says. The pollution problem must be balanced with the need for transportation, a classic case of economics versus the environment. For example, a 10-year-old bus with about 150,000 miles on it sells for $2,500 to $5,000; a new, less-polluting bus would cost at least $70,000.

Pre-1990 buses may emit up to six times more pollution than newer models, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

A generation ago, economists and scientists imagined that developing nations would avoid this dilemma. Developing countries, they predicted, would invest in cutting-edge technology and then use that climate-friendly technology to leapfrog over wealthy nations’ castoffs, the same way cell phones have helped them bypass the telecommunications infrastructure. But unlike cell phones, new buses are very expensive and old ones last a long time, so the transition can take a generation or more.

The good news is that buses with cleaner engines are in the pipeline and when they eventually arrive in developing countries, it will make a dramatic difference. The 2007 EPA standards require new buses (with the use of low-sulfur diesel fuel) to be 90% cleaner than the buses they replace. For cash-strapped schools that can’t afford a new fleet of buses immediately, there’s the option of outfitting existing buses with newer engines prior to replacing them, and installing particulate traps to reduce particle emissions. But the cost to retrofit a bus ranges from $5,000 to $8,000 per bus, according to Monahan. The Environmental Defense Fund says, “Every dollar spent on retrofitting a diesel school bus is worth at least $12 in health benefits (such as avoided emergency room visits)—a very smart investment.” Still, the exhaust-cleaning technology doesn’t work without low-sulfur fuel. That requires better petroleum-refining technology that isn’t necessarily available in developing countries.

Solutions to the problem of the chicken buses are as varied as the decorations on the buses themselves. “The answer,” says Kamakaté, “isn’t to stop the trade in used buses, but to make used vehicles as clean as they can be.” While waiting for cleaner buses to hit the secondhand market, countries such as Costa Rica are imposing age limits on imported vehicles. “They gain the benefit of lower-cost, but incrementally cleaner, vehicles,” she says. Countries can set standards for emissions and road-worthiness, safety and cleaner air, too. Still, says Kamakaté, “There’s not much regulatory activity in the importing countries.” After 30 years of civil war in Guatemala, for example, “the need for mobility and cheap vehicles is the top priority.”

Another option has gained a toehold in Guatemala City with TransMetro, the first bus-based rapid transit system in Central America. Aimee Gauthier, senior program director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, says the new system incorporates both greater efficiency and smarter use of the fleet. Phase One of the project, covering 11 kilometers (6.8 miles), has 65 new buses and works somewhat like a rail line, with dedicated lanes and prepaid fares, which means less idling. Its greater efficiency has reduced travel times by 20%, as well as significantly reducing air pollution and traffic accidents. Up to 145,000 passengers per day ride the system. TransMetro has reduced the travel times from one hour and 15 minutes to 18 minutes for express service, and it’s estimated that by the end of 2008 more than 50 million people will have taken the service.The transit system is part of a larger vision by Mayor Alvaro Arzü to create “A City for Living” focused on sustainable development.

With five active volcanoes shooting carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the air, and much local cooking done over wood fires, the air in much of Guatemala is already polluted. But as newer buses arrive, they bring hope that their internal machinery will begin to match the exterior beauty of Carmencita, Esmeralda and Norma.